The kung-fu clown

(This column, on kung-fu action hero Jackie Chan’s thoughts on democracy and limits to ‘freedom’, was published in DNA edition dated April 24, 2009.)

Venky Vembu

A couple of years ago, when action star Jackie Chan was walking the red carpet at an international film festival, he received some glowing attention from one of his numerous fans. Evidently in the belief that imitation was the best form of flattery, the fan, having drawn Chan’s attention, whirled his arms about in comic kung-fu fashion and let out a succession of whoops such as the star himself might have emitted in one of his slapstick action sequences.

For some reason, however, that incident left Jackie Chan deeply disturbed. For months afterwards, in media interviews and in public articulations, he gave expression to a deep sense of disquiet that he was forever being typecast as a non-serious kung-fu comedian, whereas in fact in his own image he was a rather more serious-minded thespian who deserved to be greeted with greater dignity and decorum. “Would Robert De Nero’s fans ever greet him in that crazy way?” he moaned, perhaps blind to the fact that he had himself assiduously cultivated the image of himself as a kung-fu clown for years.

Last fortnight, however, Chan gave even more reason for the world to believe he is ill-equipped, even in real life, for situations that call for the faintest bit of gravitas. Attending a business forum in southern China, where he was asked to comment on film censorship in China, Chan well and truly put his foot in his mouth with an expansive answer that was overly dismissive of the notion of “freedom” – not just in the world of culture but in civil society in China.

He wasn’t at all sure, he said, if it was good to have freedom, and in fact “too much freedom” might give way to chaos: as example of “chaotic” societies, he cited Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region of China, which enjoys a far greater degree of political openness than mainland China (but falls short of being a full democracy); and he cited Taiwan, the fully democratic breakaway island that enjoys de facto independence but over which China claims territorial sovereignty.

More grievously, Chan went on to say that he was “gradually beginning to believe that we Chinese need to be controlled… If we’re not controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

It is perhaps never any good to take seriously the vacuous and ill-informed pronouncements of celebrities – and Jackie Chan isn’t the first such celebrity to make an ass of himself with his commentary on subjects where he is clearly out of his depths. Yet, his words have predictably whipped up outrage – not only in Hong Kong (where he lives for much of the year, and which region he represents as a Tourism Ambassador) and Taiwan, but even among sections of civil society in China that are fighting for greater freedoms.

That’s because Jackie Chan’s opinion on the need for “controls” on freedom, which was cheered by the business elite who had gathered at the forum, reflects the perverted worldview of someone who is at the top of the pyramid of economic power and for whom an oligarchic system works just fine. As incensed Chinese commentators have pointed out, Chan’s argument echoes precisely the same line that colonialists everywhere invoked as justification of their continued occupation of their colonies. It’s also the same argument that the power elite in China, including Communist Party members and the business barons who cut deals with them, invoke to justify the perpetuation of one-party authoritarian rule in China and the abridgement of a range of freedoms for its people.

To be fair, such a worldview isn’t confined to the power elite in China alone. You can hear similar sentiments in India too, in the occasional yearnings among an increasingly jaded, new-rich class for a “benevolent dictatorship” that would do the dirty odd jobs that no democratically elected government can. But unlike in India, where they merely reflect the longing for an unrealisable political arrangement, China already has a working model of that oligarchic Animal Farm utopia.

In advancing the case for limits of freedom, Chan was perhaps merely taking forward the spirit of the ‘social contract’ that China’s leaders have worked out with its citizens. Under this, China’s leaders pledged themselves to deliver economic growth, in return for which its citizens accepted limits on their political freedoms. But that contract, which may have worked well in the decades of high growth, is coming under strain because of the recent economic slowdown and growing unemployment. There have been increasing demands for an end to one-party rule, and a progress towards a democratic order.

Whether or not these demands will bear fruit is not the point. But with his mindless, undemocratic pronouncements, Chan, the kung-fu clown, has delivered a flying kick to the teeth of his own people who elevated him to international stardom.



About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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